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Bosnia: Life In Bihac Returning To Normal

  • Jolyon Naegele

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Dayton peace accords that ended four-and-a-half years of fighting in the former Yugoslavia. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele returns to the town of Bihac, which was besieged by Serbs before being liberated by Croatian forces in 1995. Our correspondent first visited the town during the war in 1993, and again after the Dayton peace accords were signed in 1995. He reports that while day-to-day life is returning to normal, many problems remain unresolved.

Bihac, 21 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Seven years ago, Bihac was a besieged town of frightened Muslims, Croats, and a few remaining Serbs. The town's residents were protected by the mainly Muslim Bosnian army and an allied detachment of Bosnian-Croat troops.

Bosnian-Serb forces and Krajina-Serb rebel forces just across the border in Croatia encircled the town. Serb shelling of Bihac was a daily occurrence. Residents were preparing for their second war-time winter -- many without glass in their windows. Electricity was occasional and gasoline was sold on the sidewalk in Coca-Cola bottles. Having enough firewood to make it through the winter was essential.

The Serbs never succeeded in overrunning Bihac, largely because their heavy weaponry was tied up in other parts of Bosnia. Bihac was thus spared the fate of another UN "safe haven," Srebrenica, where Bosnian-Serb troops -- after overrunning the town in 1995 and separating the men from women and children -- murdered several thousand Muslim men.

Croatian forces lifted the siege of Bihac in 1995 during Operation Oluja (Storm), in which they also routed separatist Krajina Serb forces.

Shortly after the signing of the Dayton accords that year, money from relatives abroad started reaching Bihac residents. International aid poured in, and within weeks, the town was rebuilding homes and businesses.

Today, few signs are left that Bihac endured the years of bombardment. Although some facades remain pockmarked from shrapnel, most buildings as well as roads and infrastructure have been repaired and many new businesses have been built.

Ethnic tensions, however, have not dissipated as quickly. Now, with Muslims in full control of Bihac, it's the non-Muslims who have faced threats and expulsions from their homes and jobs.

A non-Muslim Bihac native who, together with her mixed-parentage husband faced threats in the first two years after Dayton, agreed to speak to RFE/RL on condition her name would not be used.

She says the situation in Bihac has improved since the immediate post-Dayton phase. In her words: "It is better -- I haven't had any problems for over two years and I've decided not to be frightened anymore." She asks: "Who has the right to tell me I shouldn't be here? I was born here."

The Dayton accords declared Bosnia-Herzegovina to be a single state divided into two entities: the ethnic-Serb "Republika Srpska" and the Croat-Muslim "Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina." The boundary between the two is largely identical to the front line at the end of the fighting. The Croat-Muslim Federation is subdivided into 10 regions, or cantons. Bihac serves as the administrative center of the Una-Sana region.

But frustration remains on both sides of the largely unmarked interentity boundary. This is largely because of the weak federal structures that supposedly link the two entities politically.

The all-Bosnian parliament, which has already served two two-year terms, has yet to enact a single law. Instead, the Office of the High Representative issues edicts.

The high representative also dismisses non-complying government officials, including last year, the governor of Una-Sana canton, a member of the main Muslim nationalist party (the Party of Democratic Action).

His replacement was Muhamed Beganovic of the moderate Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose days as governor may be soon be over after cantonal and parliamentary elections early this month in which his party fared poorly in Una-Sana canton. Beganovic is dismissive of the all-Bosnian state, calling it a "surrogate state" ("surogatna drzava"), and says only an integrated economy can bring the country together:

"I think if we succeed in regionalizing the Bosnian economy, regardless of the boundaries of the entities, if the economy works, the boundaries will disappear."

Beganovic says the Bosnian state has to be changed. He says that while nothing stops him from travelling to the Bosnian-Serb capital Banja Luka, there is no system of contacts between the cantonal governments in the federation and officials in Republika Srpska. In elections this month, Beganovic's party's campaigned on the slogan "Bosnia Without Entities," for which it was condemned by the OSCE.

Beganovic says Bosnia desperately needs reorganization, especially in its economy. But he says this remains out of the question as long as the country remains divided into two entities with a dysfunctional state superstructure.

"Simply, the life, the economy, will show what is best. Unfortunately, in our country, politics are always first and then the economy. I'm a businessman, and I say that the economy should come first and then politics, because the economy would regulate politics.

Part of the answer, Beganovic says, is that every citizen of Bosnia must have the same rights regardless of what part of the country he is in. He says laws have to be respected and applied equally, and the constitution must be implemented throughout the country.

Beganovic is a businessman who owns a styrofoam factory. He says privatization is also key part to the solution. He argues that the sooner the country's businesses are privatized, the sooner life will improve and the more foreign capital will flow into Bosnia. But he notes this all depends on establishing the right conditions to make Bosnia "a real part of Europe."

Another Bihac businessman who has entered politics is the director of the local brewery, Adem Ibrahimpasic.

Throughout the war, Bihac's Czech-designed brewery, just 300 meters from the front lines, produced more than 10,000 bottles of beer a day despite mortar attacks by Serbian forces that destroyed parts of the brewery. Much of the beer made its way across the front to the Serbs -- for cash or for gasoline, weapons, and other essentials.

The brewery, still under the same management as during the war, has since repaired and modernized itself and seven months ago went private. Its managers bought out the state-owned firm for six million German marks (more than $2.7 million) and are now boosting production to 100,000 hectoliters a year to meet local demand.

As well as running the brewery, Ibrahimpasic heads the cantonal leadership of the multiethnic Social Democratic Party, the successor to the old Tito-era League of Communists. He, too, is not impressed with developments since Dayton.

"We are at a standstill, a total standstill. I'd call it a depression. We don't even have stagnation. We have damage. In this canton, we are far poorer than we were in 1995. I can assure you, on average, we are poor. Another matter is that a specific caste was allowed to become rich, incredibly rich, while the average person is poorer. That goes without saying."

Ibrahimpasic is barred from holding public office because the international community has banned anyone who owns more than 25 percent of a large business from holding public office. Ibrahimpasic holds a 40 percent share in the brewery.

The Muslim-nationalist Party of Democratic Action finished first in the canton in the November election, with nearly half the vote. This was considered a blow for the multiethnic and more moderate Social Democrats, but political observers point out local support for the nationalists has dropped over the past four years.

The Social Democrats are now trying to form what is termed an "anti-nationalist bloc" in parliament in coalition with other moderate parties. One of the bloc's main goals reportedly will be the unconditional and immediate apprehension of war criminals.